Q&A: Rody Boonchouy Says There is a Deeper Learning and Equity Mission that PBL Can Advance

By Mai P. Tran, ECMC Foundation


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As the Senior Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at the Buck Institute of Education (BIE), Boonchouy leads the development and dissemination of professional development activities for Project Based Learning (PBL) across the country.

ECMC Foundation has partnered with BIE to support the planning of its pilot PBL-centered training program for schools of education faculty members who train pre-service teachers. BIE is a global leader in professional development for teachers and school leaders at the state and district level in how to adopt PBL in all classrooms.

We spoke to Boonchouy, who leads the pilot project. In this Q&A, he shares thoughts on the importance of PBL and discusses a workshop ("Community Voices: Understanding the Past and Imagining the Future of San Diego") that he will facilitate at the 2017 Deeper Learning Conference, taking place March 29-31 in San Diego, CA. Through the immersive session, participants will experience the transformative nature of PBL at students to better understand the process as educators.

Why are Deeper Learning instructional methods, such as PBL, critical in today's classrooms?

The world we live in is increasingly interconnected, highly automated and rapidly changing. Today, we all hold a world of knowledge in our hands through advancements in technology. When students move into the workforce, they enter a very complex world. Therefore, it's not enough to focus on the acquisition of knowledge anymore. We have to make sense of all this information and think critically.

We need an instructional methodology that enables that type of learning. Not only do we have to help students learn content, but we also need to support them in developing skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.

PBL is a wonderful vehicle to make that happen. It is a highly collaborative experience that engages students in real-world, authentic challenges and problems. Students apply the content to relevant circumstances. They learn to communicate, collaborate and work with others to address challenges.

What motivates and inspires you to train teachers in Deeper Learning?

We have led project-based training all over the country for more than 10 years and we ask teachers, "What are the ideal traits and characteristics that you want your students to graduate with?" More often than not, teachers say the same things: empathy, compassion, collaborative and self-actualized—skills that PBL helps develop. This is indicative of why teachers get into the profession in the first place: they are satisfied and fulfilled when their students develop these characteristics.

Therefore, PBL is not only good for students, it's good for teachers as well. It helps unleash the joy and purpose of why teachers go into the profession. Teachers become fellow learners with their students, facilitators and coaches rather than arbiters of knowledge.

How did you first become involved with PBL-training?

I taught overseas, in Southern California and in inner city schools. I also founded a PBL school 13 years ago where I was a PBL teacher and then principal. I am a classroom teacher at heart.

Did your teaching experiences inspire you to train teachers in PBL?

In my teaching career, I worked with students who were marginalized and didn't fit in the traditional education model. The model has been around for over a century and does not serve everyone. What renews my passion and joy for teaching is using PBL, which accommodates the diverse strengths, interests and cultural backgrounds that students bring to the classroom. It makes learning come alive for them. There is a deep equity mission that PBL can advance. It's brought successes for my students, and it's one of the reasons why I feel passionate about spreading the successes of PBL to teachers across the country.

At this year's Deeper Learning Conference, you will be facilitating a session on PBL. What will it entail and what are the goals of the session?

We spend a full day with participants, and they will experience an entire project-based unit from beginning to end. They will go out into the community and interview locals, identify challenges in San Diego, and propose a solution to address these challenges. It's hands-on and not your typical conference session.

We want them to experience the power of PBL from the learner's perspective. So often, educators provide workshops that tell participants the power of a tool or strategy. In this highly interactive experience, they will walk away with a deep intellectual, affective, and practical understanding of it.. We believe that when participants can experience it as a learner, they are more likely to understand why PBL is important. It is important to have an emotional and affective experience so that both their minds and hearts understand the power of PBL.

Deeper Learning

Why is expanding this training to pre-service teachers critical?

It is critical because historically we have only been serving teachers who are already in the classroom, a large number of them for several years. In many cases, it requires a lot of unlearning of their practices in order to use PBL. It makes sense to develop teachers at the beginning of their careers so we don't have to do any unlearning. It will also provide a pipeline for schools and school districts to be able to hire teachers that have the training and the ability to use PBL.

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